Down and Out in New York City

Unmoved by “stale, factual representation” and the impartial nature of absolute archive, iconoclast filmmaker Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 On the Bowery (a restored version of which begins screening at New York’s Film Forum today) is not an index of destitution and decay, but a portrait of compassionate realism. Pioneering in the field of documentary film, Rogosin’s mix of scripted dialogue and candid vérité depicts the Bowery’s cast off streets and down-and-out vagrants with an unflinching resolve to not look away.

Slurring words and slumped over tables at the Confidence Bar & Grill, men with wrinkled, scar-torn faces pool their last pennies for one more Rheingold before roving from flophouse domino games to prosaic Mission sermons. After, they fall asleep sitting up, slouched in doorways, collapsed in the middle of the road, their palpable “Nuthin”-ness and hollowed stares resuming every morning. These men are the subject of Rogosin’s sixty-five minute film.

Among them are a young vagrant railroad worker, Ray Salyer, and his “chaperon,” a Bowery denizen, Gorman Hendricks. Theirs is three day acquaintance that guides the film in and around life below the Third Avenue El.

Having visibly inspired the taxed faces and private moments of Robert Frank’s The Americans, On the Bowery was revolutionary. John Cassavetes, who believed that “telling the truth as someone else sees it” is far more meaningful than “telling it as you see it,” had this to say about Rogosin: “This is a guy who’s probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” And it’s no surprise, because scattered among Cassavetes’s films are terrificly indelible performances by minor roles, men who too have an everyday quality, sometimes frantic, sometimes funny, but always a bit bankrupt on life.